Dave Lewis finally got his opportunity. But he never had a chance.
Scotty Bowman skated the Stanley Cup around the Joe Louis Arena ice. It was a June evening in 2002.
Bowman had just won his ninth Cup as coach, and third with the Red Wings. He was 68 years old.
During the on-ice celebration, Bowman—arguably the greatest coach in professional sports history—whispered into captain Steve Yzerman’s ear that this was it. Scotty was retiring.
Bowman had been the Red Wings coach for nine seasons. After a rough first season (first round playoff KO at the hands of the upstart San Jose Sharks), there was much success. Three Stanley Cups speak for themselves.
With Scotty’s self-ziggy, the Red Wings needed a new coach, and there wasn’t any real competition for the plum job.
Lewis, ex-Red Wings player and longtime assistant coach who’d worked for three head coaches in Detroit, was tabbed as Bowman’s replacement.
It was hailed as the proper comeuppance for a loyal employee.
This was Dave Lewis’ big chance, but truth be told, Lewis didn’t have a prayer as Scotty Bowman’s successor.
Lewis was too close to the players as an assistant, especially given Bowman’s sometimes prickly relationship with his players. When the players in pro sports have a beef with the boss, they take those beefs to the assistants.
Lewis had been that assistant, for some 14 years, working for Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray and Bowman. For 14 years, Dave Lewis played the role of confidante and sounding board for the players.
That role evaporates when you move into the big office.
Lewis had two good regular seasons in Detroit as head coach, but he failed to get past the second round of the playoffs. In his first year, Lewis’ Red Wings were swept in the first round by a surprising Anaheim team that would make it to the Cup Finals.
The Mighty Ducks were coached by some guy named Mike Babcock.
In year two, Lewis managed to make it past Nashville before being blasted out by Calgary in another playoff upset.
Then the lockout happened, wiping out the 2004-05 season.
When play resumed in 2005, Lewis was out as coach of the Red Wings.
Babcock replaced him, and three years later the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.
Dave Lewis is the cautionary tale among Red Wings coaches.
He was Exhibit A in the argument that longtime assistants shouldn’t necessarily be rewarded with promotions.
Lewis didn’t get along with some of the veterans as head coach, notably Brett Hull, who in Lewis’ defense could be a handful.
Things change when you go from assistant to head man.
The Red Wings, as I write this, are homing in on their new coach, to replace Babcock, who signed with Toronto.
He is Jeff Blashill, a loyal, longtime employee of the Red Wings organization and current coach of the team’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids.
Blashill appears to be on the verge of being hired with virtually no competition.
Kind of like Dave Lewis was in 2002.
But Blashill has an advantage over Lewis: Blashill only stood behind the Red Wings bench as an assistant for one year. Several players at the NHL level know Blashill from their days at Grand Rapids.
But there’s a distinct difference between being a former Babcock assistant and an AHL coach, and being head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.
Blashill is, apparently, about to find out. He is expected to be named Red Wings head coach any day now.
The Red Wings, unlike with the Dave Lewis hire in 2002, are doing the right thing. My opinion.
There’s no real reason to interview anyone outside of the organ-eye-ZAY-shun to replace Babcock.
The Red Wings, if they’re anything, are prepared.
As early as last summer, the Red Wings had a hunch that Babcock might bolt when his contract expired come July 1, 2015. So they locked up Blashill, doubling his salary at Grand Rapids with the provision that he not entertain any offers (he would have gotten some) from NHL teams throughout the 2014-15 season.
Now Babcock is gone, as feared, and the Red Wings have their next coach all lined up.
There’s no real reason to interview anyone other than Blashill because the Red Wings have groomed him for this moment. Now that it’s here, why look elsewhere?
The eggs are all in the Blashill basket, but that’s OK, because if there was ever a “good” time for arguably the best coach in the NHL to flee Detroit, it’s now.
Mike Babcock—with some definite help from GM Ken Holland—has left the team in good shape for a young, inexperienced (NHL-wise) coach such as Jeff Blashill to commandeer.
Babcock has coached up the Grand Rapids Griffins-turned-Red Wings who’ve turned up on the NHL roster over the past three years. Players that Blashill had first crack at.
Blashill coaches in the same manner, it’s said, as Babcock. Certainly Blashill, in Grand Rapids, believes in the same system that they use in Detroit.
The next couple of years should be fascinating to watch when it comes to Red Wings hockey.
There’s going to be a referendum, one way or the other.
The question to be answered will be, “How much will the Red Wings miss Mike Babcock?”
That’s where Jeff Blashill comes in, because if he’s able to lift the Red Wings to the next level, i.e. past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it won’t be about Babcock anymore.
With Dave Lewis, the shadow of Scotty Bowman always loomed. Lewis took over the defending Stanley Cup champs and a team that won three Cups in six years.
There was nowhere to go but down for Lewie.
Blashill is succeeding a high profile guy behind the Red Wings bench, but at the same time, it’s not a terribly tough act to follow.
Babcock has a great resume and the hardware to support it, but the hard fact remains that the Red Wings haven’t advanced to round three of the playoffs in six years.
In the six years prior to Lewis taking over the Red Wings in 2002, the team had won three Cups.
Dave Lewis, in retrospect, never really had a chance as Red Wings coach.
Jeff Blashill seems to have a great chance.